Jim Jarmusch typically crafts films with a surprising amount of care even though, on the surface, they seem lackadaisical and coolly removed. I have generally been a big fan of the way in which he can pull off such truthful and sincere films while appearing to be apathetic and stylish. His new film is endlessly frustrating because while it has his typical social critique of American life, it never feels genuinely engaged with itself.
For the first half of The Dead Don't Die, Jarmusch does a nice job of setting up a series of vignettes set in the small town of Centerville that explore the divides among its townspeople. There is Steve Buscemi as a racist farmer who regularly has coffee next to Danny Glover's hardware store owner for example. The film has a nice balance of sharp deadpan humor with a dose of sadness that works for about 30 minutes. Then the film decides to become increasingly self-referential, constantly calling attention to itself as a film. Early on, during the opening credits of the film, we hear Sturgill Simpson's theme song for the film which upon the second time we hear it gets directly pointed out as the theme song for the film. The film is meta in the worse way.
Jarmusch seems terribly uninterested in the film functioning at all like a horror film. Elements are introduced only to never come to any fruition. For example, early on the film introduces the notion that whatever is causing the dead to rise is also draining all electronics of their life. Cell phones that were fully charged suddenly are dead. While this may fit into the film's shallow metaphor, this detail never pays off in any way. It signals how little Jarmusch cares about the horror genre here. This is especially frustrating to this horror fan as zombie films have always been great metaphors for society but the best of them work on a horror level as well. The master of the zombie film, George A. Romero, was able to make scary films that functioned as scathing critiques of society. It is what the zombie genre is based on and Jarmusch could care less.
The Dead Don't Die is too aware of its own perceived cleverness to ever be genuinely engaging. The exceptional cast is largely wasted here including Bill Murray and Adam Driver in the lead roles. The one saving grace is Tilda Swinton who yet again crafts a supremely oddball character that you want to spend time with. She is a master of weirdos and her Scottish ninja mortician role here is a gem.
Aside from that one bright spot, The Dead Don't Die is easily Jarmusch's biggest misfire. His choices throughout the film signal disdain for the horror genre. Had he only studied the master, maybe watched Dawn of the Dead, he would have seen that one can have social commentary, humor, and horror woven together in a zombie film.